IA-64 to debut with less-than-optimal Itanium

As Intel prepares to deliver its new IA-64 operating environment to computer manufacturers later this year, some observers familiar with the technology wonder if Intel jumped the gun on what the company has called the most significant development since the 486.

The reason for the uncertainty is that Intel's new Itanium processor, slated to power IA-64 initially, does not fully optimise the potential of IA-64, a fact that Gadi Singer, vice president and general manager at Intel's IA-64 processor division, acknowledged this week.

Apparently, IA-64 performs best through a synergy between hardware and software that allows the processor to speculate which calculations happen only once and which ones repeat themselves, thus maximizing the throughput of the data and preventing bottlenecks. Optimization of this synergy will not be fully realized until the release of Intel's next IA-64 processor, code-named McKinley, which is expected to arrive sometime in late 2001, according to Intel officials.

"The Itanium processors are nothing more than proof of concept for IA-64," said Mike Feibus, an analyst at Mercury Research.

"It's McKinley that will put Intel in position to really go after Sun [Microsystems] and Solaris," Feibus said. "But they couldn't roll out a new [operating environment such as IA-64] without a processor, and that's what Itanium is for."

With Sun's Solaris holding a firm grip on a considerable portion of the 64-bit high-end server market, IA-64 is viewed by many industry observers as an attempt by Intel to make inroads into this market.

"I wouldn't buy into it this early, though," said Sean Schnoor, a sales engineer at Allaire, a Web hosting company with clients such as Autobytel.com. "I mean, I could understand wanting that kind of power immediately if you were running scientific calculations, but in the 24/7 environment, we'll take it when we know we're getting the completed thought."

Intel has been criticised previously for kicking the baby out of the crib too soon, according to Dean McCarron, also an analyst at Mercury Research.

"Intel did this with the original Pentium chip, the P-5," McCarron said. "They wanted to establish a market, but the P-5 only hit 60 MHz to 65 MHz. It wasn't until later, with the release of the P-54C that hit 200 MHz, that Intel really began to blaze the trail."

Intel's Singer said he was unable to discuss what the solo processor speed of McKinley might be, but he did confirm that the processor will be based on a 0.18-micron aluminum architecture at its launch, the same as Itanium. Intel will then move to 0.13-micron copper architecture by early 2002 to take advantage of copper's greater conductivity and lower heat displacement.

Meanwhile, Intel has optimised its next generation of IA-32 processors, Willamette. In a demonstration at the developer forum this week, Willamette cranked from 1.4 GHz to 1.5 GHz at room temperature with a 400-MHz bus.

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